Theatre, some really special people

Harry Ligoff.

He was a lighting engineer, but more than that, he was the first to introduce that funny thing called a transistor into dimming the lights.

When I was very young, I’d seen saline dimmers, either at His Majesty’s or the Capital in Pretoria. They were smelly things where an electrode dipped deeper into a salt solution. It short of shily make the lights dim, but also produced quite a lot of chlorine. After that, they developed the rheostats, which scraped a carbon brush against a coil of wire. No smell of chlorine this time, just the smell of ozone.

Anyway, Ligoff, introduced his “electronic” board to the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein. I became stage manager there in 1968, and whenever it went wrong, which was quite often, we’d call in Harry. He was short, and sort of scraggly, with the hint of a hunchback. Long Bob Hope nose, and always polite, cheery, with an undercurrent of cynicism. Like he was saying to you, “So nice to see you. How can I help?”. But you could tell he was thinking, “Silly prick. What have you done this time? Flicked your cigarette ash on the dimmers, I suppose”.

I knew he was pals with Percy Baneshik, theatre critic of the Rand Daily Mail, because I sometimes saw them in the bar at the Elizabeth Hotel. Percy was another matter. He’d had polio and had a leg, or both, in irons. He was short and stunted, and the polio had also hit his arms and hands. But he drove a car. He had a long piece of wood attached to his car key, so he could insert the key into the door lock, and then press his elbow against the wood and turn it that way. He also had some hand controls on his steering wheel, to take the pressure off his feet. He never married, and as far as I can remember, lived with his mother. But he was theatre critic of The Star, and a powerful person to be feared, respected and cowered to. A bad review killed you, and a good one meant a long run. Make or break.

At that time the critic for the Sunday Times was Oliver Walker, later to be replaced by Bill Brewer. The Sunday Express was Evelyn Levison. Marylin Jenkins and Bill Edgson were on The Star. The Rand Daily Mail critic was usually Dora Sowden.

Many years later, when I was old enough to no longer be a snotty little boy, I became close to Percy, and together we discovered the old Gaiety Theatre. It had become a clothing factory, but the original moulded ceiling was still in place. Once Percy had written about it, the ceiling was bought by Adam Leslie and installed in his new theatre in End Street. Well NEW theatre, nd OLD building. It was originally a music academy founded by Lady Phillips, sometime at the beginning of the century.

Hermione Gingold

I loved that lady. I was, maybe 22, and she was over 70. It was 1969. She came out to play the lead in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, and I was stage manager.

One night, after the show, Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke came back with their aunt Muriel Alexander in a wheelchair. Old Muriel was by then nearly 90 years old, and a delightful old drunk. It was often my job to deliver groceries to her flat in Manners Mansions, and usually had to help her off the floor and into a chair to sober up. If I’d achieved what she had, I’d also be a drunk, in a permanent state of celebration.

Louis said to me, in his usually pompous manner (sort of an impersonation of Sir Donald Wolfit), “Howard, please ask Miss Gingold to come here. We can’t take aunt Muriel down the stairs.

I went down to the star dressing room, and gingerly knocked on the door. “Yes?” came that raspy Gingold voice with its sibilant lisp. “Miss Gingold, I have Muriel Alexander in the prompt corner, I can’t bring her here. She’s very old.”

“Muriel Alexander? Nonsense. She’s dead.”

“She’s not, she’s in the prompt corner, but very old.”

“Must be at least 100”, she murmured, and then yelled, “Muriel Alexander, oh my Jesus!”

She threw on her wig, did up her dressing gown cord, and fled up the stairs. At the sight of Muriel, she fell to her knees, and both of them started crying. I’m not sure they actually said anything to each other, they were too occupied crying. Later Gingold told me that she hadn’t seen her since 1908, when they both played in Pinky and the Fairies directed by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. I thought, what if they hated each other in 1908? I’d also have cried if I’d again met my worst enemy after more than 60 years.

 Pinkie and the Fairies in 1908. Hermione Gingold and Muriel Alexander are there somewhere. Photo credit:


If you needed a revolving stage, the only person who could build it for you was Harry Klass of CEMCO. I think CEMCO stood for Cinema Engineering Manufacturing company, an he’d made his fortune when they invented Cinemascope. Most films were still standard format, so the screen had to have motorised masks that could changed the black border of the screen from 4:3 to 1.85:1 to accommodate the super wide screen.

Then of course, the studios kept on bringing out different aspect ratio formats: VistaVision, Todd AO, Panavision and so on. Creating new mask, all motorised, for hundreds of screens all over the country, kept Harry going, prosperously, for years. Don’t forget, there was no TV until 1976. Everyone went to the movies. Sometimes to watch the film, but often to have sex in the back row, smoke if you were under 16, and even drink alcohol copiously. To be fair, very few actually had sex in the back row. Most were using very silly techniques to start trying to have sex, like putting your around the girl’s shoulders.

Harry made several revolving stages for shows I stage managed: Fiddler on the Roof, Canterbury Tales, and Androcles and the Lion. These were all hit shows, but that was in the context of the time.

Harry was something like Harry Ligoff. Polite, gentlemanly, but said one thing, nd thought another. His unspoken thoughts were possibly, “Nice to make an exorbitant profit out of you.”

Today, looking back, those hit stage shows were quite silly. But they were all we had, and silly TV hadn’t hit the box in our homes yet, with even sillier shows. By the time I had graduated from theatre to film, and then to TV. I had mastered the art of making kitsch rubbish.

Joe Freedman

Joe was the lighting man for African Theatres, so he was always there whether you were working in Johannesburg at the Empire, Colosseum, or His Majesty’s; in Durban at the Alhambra; in Pretoria at the Capitol; or in Cape Town at the Alhambra. He was cool, always smiling, his lips betraying what he was thinking, “You silly turd. You know nothing, and you think you’re in charge. No stage manager is in charge of me, especially one that’s 22 years old. I’d tell you to fuck off if it was worth it.”

His assistant was older than he was, Ronnie Watters. Ronnie bred rabbits. He dyed them different colours and sold them at show grounds, sports stadiums and entrainment parks. He didn’t think evil thoughts like Joe Friedman did, he was too busy thinking about coloured bunnies.

Joe was very masculine and attractive, and usually had very discreet affairs with women in the cast – especially chorus girls. So discreet, that you only got to hear about it if the girl boasted about it. But then, Joe was in such demand, that you didn’t believe the girl, to whom it was often “in her dreams”.

The old-timers

African Theatres was full of “old timers” who’s careers hailed back to the 1930’s. At the Empire in Johannesburg, Louis Shinwell and his wife Jenny has retired into a flat at the top the theatre as general caretakers. Buy when  live show came in, Louis would go back to his role of crusty old stage mechanist. And Jenny would, whether you liked it or not, become head of wardrobe.

Louis had seen it all, and told you over and over again until you could sing along with him. He looked at the thirty-foot revolving stage we used for Fiddler on the Roof, and continuously reminded me that it was four feet smaller than the one used in the same theatre in 1934 for White Horse Inn. And, that was the show that brought Bruce Anderson to South Africa. And a limited repertoire of snippets like that, endlessly repeated.

Louis had an older brother, Mannie, who had the same semi-retirement at the Alhambra in Durban. His wife, Mabel, also took on Jenny’s role, when the show moved to Durban. Mabel had no teeth, and seemed determined to do without them, so we referred to her as the witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

The old timers like Louis, Mannie, Jenny and Mabel Shinwell had the whole history of African Theatres in their heads. That went with them, and went again when African Theatres became Ster Kinekor. The new cinema chain, now owned by Sanlam, had no room for 70 years of archives, so evert record, programme, article, newspaper cutting an admin documents was tossed onto the rubbish heap, as they were cutting down on floor space. History repeats itself, because it’s always being tossed into the dustbin.

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